The Tarnished Necklace

As I waited for a repair in a small jewelry shop, a woman came in with a gold chain she had purchased a year before. Her distress was clear. She asked immediately, “I thought you said this was gold.”

The jeweler, ever the salesman, replied, “Yes, you chose a good piece there.”

“Then why did it tarnish?”

Pure gold doesn’t tarnish. Indeed, that has been its appeal through the millennia. Pieces retrieved from Egyptian pyramids and Greek ruins, Mayan tombs and Celtic hoards all sparkle and glow. In our age, the gold that we wear is hardened with other alloys. The purest gold is 24 carat, but it’s too pliable for regular jewelry, so soft that it would pull apart (I had a 24 carat ring once, inherited from my great-great-aunt. For some reason, they gave it to me when I was 10. After several repair episodes, my little ring became part of a house foundation because I played in some construction sand during the build.)

Our erstwhile consumer had purchased a good piece of jewelry, but it was not pure gold. The jeweler had been in business long enough to know not to argue. He began a careful exploration of the facts to get to the root of the problem.

Have you been taking any new medicine?

Have you sprayed it with hairspray? Perfume?

Have you been around turpentine or any other strong chemicals?

Have you worn it when you were sweating?

Have you been swimming with the necklace on?

To each of his questions, the woman answered “No.” Sometimes there was a brief discussion. He clearly knew the causes of potential harm to her necklace. Sometimes the woman would remind him that he had told her the piece was good, and he would respond calmly that it would remain a good piece.

The jeweler was, to the best of his ability, being scientific by trying to rule out the reasons that the necklace might have tarnished. She, understandably if defensively, was emotional. He assured her that he could restore the shine to her necklace. Nothing much seemed to satisfy or interest her but the promise of renewal. He took the piece and cleaned it, then buffed it with a soft cloth. He told her that he might need to keep it for more intensive work if these methods did not work. A soak perhaps.

Friendship is like gold. At a recent memorial, one man said this, “Friendship is the most precious experience of something beyond the material world that I know of. It is infinite, eternal, and rare. A friendship that transforms itself as it allows for the transformation of its inhabitors is rarer still…” What a perfect description for nourishing and maintaining a relationship. It’s easy to let it tarnish. The questions the jeweler asked can apply: Did you let something on or in? Swim somewhere you shouldn’t? Change?

This weekend we were driving through the Hill Country when we spotted a sign that said “The Home of Once Was.” A rather poignant tag for the town of Lott, Texas, or Travis; the sign didn’t say. With a little research, I learned that these little towns never had been much. Small populations that peaked at 900 or so, now down 60. But the phrase is catchy. It would be a great short story title for another time, though sad.

We protect that which is precious. Friendships can’t always be repaired, unlike gold. Human hearts are tender. Better not to say of a friendship that it “once was.” Better to love well, keep love well, and say it well.



Don’t Do It: Version Two (non-political)

These topics were reviewed and rejected as not enough to fill a column:

Have you noticed that people for whom you pause in parking lots walk faster because you’re waiting? My estimate puts the odds at 90% of the time this is the case.

Once a woman and I stood at an Aldi’s fruit display, discussing the nice-looking watermelons. She chose one and went to check out. When she was done, she hurried back and told me they were on half price! That’s never happened before or since.

Hell. I am not a cursing person. “Oh my word” or “Rats!” cover it. One of my sons has told his children he will pay them $50 if they can get me to say “park” backward. I once or twice taught Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, not terribly successfully, although I rather like the one-act play and Beckett in general. Yes, I am avoiding my real topic. Back to hell: A long period in which you give up hope of getting to your destination, thereby making the journey bearable.

Now that you have invested so much time here, I hope (see hell) that you won’t give up but will continue. I have to write about death, again, but not in an elegiac manner as I have before when some dear ones died.

First, Kate Spade. She was rich, famous, depressed, anxious. She was apparently obsessed with Robin Williams’ 2014 suicide. She was 55. She had a 13-year-old daughter.

Second, Anthony Bourdain. He was rich, famous, a former heroin addict. He had a secondary career as a writer. He was 61. He had an 11-year-old daughter.

Third, Jackson Odell. He was well-known, enough that news of his death was national and international. He was only 20, but he had parents and siblings and talent.  IMDB shows his history, with contributions as recent as the 2018 soundtrack of Forever My Girl.

Josh Wolf, the father of Jackson’s best friend, had this to say: “There was no part of Jackson that was suicidal and Jackson should not be lumped in with anyone that is suicidal, or that was looking for a way out.” I’m going to have to disagree. He was in a sober living home, recovering from addiction. Or perhaps he wasn’t. To my thinking, his death was as much a suicide as if he had (insert horrible end here.) I am not “lumping” Jackson; I am reporting  through my sadness as fact that he, more than likely, contributed to his own death. He and all the tens of thousands of others.

I struggled with all these deaths and wondered what I might say. Someone suggested this passage from the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes: “Taking your life. Interesting expression. Taking it from whom? Once it’s over, it’s not you who will miss it. Your own death is something that happens to everybody else. Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it.” You can watch Benedict Cumberbatch here. (Oddly, he says “from who,” but the version I read said “whom,” and that’s what you’ll get because it’s correct. Either way, it’s better than anything I could have written.)

This is what it looks like when someone else takes your life: A young mother was shot to death on June 13 when she refused to give her keys to a carjacker. As her 8-year-old held her, waiting for the ambulance, Porsha Owens said, “I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to die.” So like a mother to apologize. She has a GoFundMe page, and yes, I’m now one of 4756 people who donated.

This article has good data about the increase of incidents of suicide in the past 20 years. It suggests strategies to help, as we “fight this together.” David Spade donated $100,000 to a mental health alliance; Kate was his sister-in-law. This site has links and information for people who are considering suicide, are worried about someone who is, or have lost someone to suicide. It must be for everyone, then, because I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by this pain. Perhaps you’ll choose to donate to one of the charities described in this article, written after Robin Williams’ death.

And you? I don’t know who you are or if you’re thinking of suicide. But please. Don’t do it.

Don’t do it, Bernie.


Dream jobs: mine include naming paints and flying an F-16. A Blackbird would really fit the bill, but it’s less likely than naming paints. A more likely possibility is personal advisor.

I see myself with lots of famous clients. Perhaps Hillary Clinton would’ve asked me, “Should I wear that $12,495 Armani jacket?” No, unless you’ve got a story about buying it at a thrift store. No one cares that you’re worth $31 million. Flaunting it, different matter.

Coke brought out New Coke, a term unfamiliar to the younguns. Of course, anyone could have told them no.

McKinney built a $70 million football stadium. Didn’t they notice the $60 million one in Allen cracked? No, to whoever wants to go for $80 million. Your kids can barely read and write. Buy books. Pay your teachers.

All remakes, most sequels.

President Trump: “Should I send this twee…” No.

Obviously, the list recurs eternally, as do politicians. This week Bernie Sanders announced that he’d consider running for president in 2020. If he were to hire me, I’d advise against it.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ chances were nil. While some have speculated that the primaries were rigged, Donna Brazile countered with her own research; while nothing illegal happened, Clinton’s takeover of the party’s finances and strategy before she was the nominee altered the course of the campaign for everyone but her.

Sanders remains popular, broadly as well as with his supporters. The most popular of any senator, with a 72% rating in Vermont, nationally he has an astonishing 76% approval rating as a presidential candidate. Santa Claus may not be that popular.

In the 2016 primaries, Sanders garnered 12 million votes; Clinton took almost 16 million, a margin of 3.75 million. Here’s the odd thing: A recent poll shows that 12% of Sanders’ supporters voted for Trump in the general election. That suggests a depth of feeling as well as a rejection of the status quo. It was Bernie they wanted; Clinton wasn’t an alternative.

These reasons—a rigged first effort, popularity, and a close finish to the front-runner—might suggest that he should try again. But no…

First, he may have done well in the primaries, and he likely sent the party to the left. Yes, people who “felt the Bern” were adamant, but that didn’t spread or translate into the general population. I think he received all the votes he’d be likely to get.

Second, his signature programs would require more money than is realistic. Free college tuition, for example, uses as a base $70 billion a year for public 4- and 2-year colleges. Sanders’ bill proposes $47 billion in federal funding with the remaining portion picked up by the states. New York passed a similar bill in 2016. With all factors in place, the number of students qualifying for Excelsior Scholarships is actually low, just 6%. Other funding must be explored first, for example. Over 275,000 New York students submitted FAFSA applications last school year; 22,000 applied for the New York scholarships, for which $87 million was budgeted. The individual awards do not quite meet tuition, however, and don’t cover anything but tuition. Room and board, fees, and books often present substantial barriers to students in need. And it’s a complicated process. One college professor said this: “I think they absolutely struggle with the complexity. It’s not nearly as simple as it was marketed.” The limitations are not lost on the intended recipients. “Basically, it’s a scam,” one student (said). “It didn’t help that SUNY schools had a $200 tuition increase this year.” Imagine extrapolating that complexity and lack of enthusiasm to the entire country.

Medicare for All, another Sanders initiative, comes in at $1.4 trillion a year according to some sources. The Urban Institute ups that to $36 trillion for 10 years. Taking into consideration that the FY2019 US budget is only $4.407 trillion, somebody must be dreaming. How could this work? It may all be political “framing,” according to this article from NPR. Initially, Sanders introduced the bill in 2013 but had no co-sponsors. This time, he has 16, suggesting that the idea is to get votes even if the bill cannot pass.

Finally, let’s forget the numbers. The United States remains a country with a Judeo-Christian moral base. Church attendance aside, Americans help each other because of the deeply ingrained Golden Rule. Living by that precept requires money. Both liberals and conservatives give to charities; this article describes different motivations. This New York Times article notes that liberals give 30% less than conservatives, however. Here Huffington Post graphs out not just giving but also volunteering. Red states do better in both, though the 30% figure doesn’t hold.

But what does that have to do with Bernie Sanders? The more philosophical argument has to do with Sanders’ democratic socialism itself. Consider this passage from a 1965 tract by Jamaican activist Bertell Ollman: “Pained by the sight of so much suffering, many high minded Christians have turned to socialism as the solution.” The title of this work says a lot—Socialism Is Practical Christianity. Many more examples abound with this conclusion: If we turn our goods over to the state, a more equitable society will result. If you’re Christian (or Jewish or Muslim), you are supposed to agree that the poor must be taken care of. For Sanders, the state will manage better than you can.

Historically, even the religious community has never eradicated poverty or inequality. Human nature will out. Having all things in common is a millenialist ideal; its time has not come. Marc E. Fitch says it best, quoting first from The Brothers Karamazov:

“So, in the end, they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: ‘Enslave us, but feed us!’ And they will finally understand that freedom and the assurance of daily bread for everyone are two incompatible notions that could never co-exist!” Christ may have been able to turn stone into bread or feed 5,000 with three loaves and two fish, but the state is no miracle worker. Any time the state embarks on a miraculous quest, it is always an act of power, not faith or charity. (emphasis added)

So, no, Bernie, don’t do it. We’re just not good enough for what you want from us. Not next year anyway.

Graduation 2018

It has come to my attention that among the 8 or 10 million things I will never do (live in a mansion in Hollywood Hills, jump out of an airplane, keep a tarantula as a pet), I will also never give a commencement speech. Having heard a few more than I can remember, I thought I would draft one in some seriousness for all those graduates who will never hear it.

First, of course, congratulations. You have finished something. Not everyone does, for a plethora of reasons. Of this you can be proud. Perhaps you learned things. Until I entered graduate school, I was never serious about retaining much that I learned except to pass a test. As I congratulate you, I also ask that you don’t put off the learning part for as long as I did. No, you may not need all those theorems you learned, but you might, and you likely will encounter a lot more things you actually need.

What I’d like to do today is present a list of best practices. It’s the stuff of commencement speeches—the captive audience model. These ideas are not my own but a compilation of thoughts I’ve heard from others, with proper attributions to sources, naturally, where appropriate.

  1. Make up your bed every morning. This just in from Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The author is apparently the target of much negative press as explained in lengthy detail here or briefly here. Now your mother could tell you to make up your bed, but Dr. Peterson, a clinical psychologist aiming to correct the ills of Western culture, may have more sway. He suggests that this one simple action in the morning sets your day on the right track, regardless of what happens afterward. It’s a matter of controlling your environment, improving your outlook. He summarizes it here. When I was young, my mother made up my bed and put my gown or PJs under my pillow. It was one of the sweetest acts ever. But when I left home, neither the nice-looking bed nor the carefully stowed sleepwear came with me. I did start making my bed in my thirties. Not too late, but you can do better.
  2. Can’t never could. Source unknown, although it appears on this list of distinctly Southern sayings. I never heard it until I was an adult but have taken it to heart. It has the motivational quality of all the motivational posters ever made, in three short words. It offers its own antidote to the “You can do anything you want” hogwash baloney you may now be graduating from. They love you, your teachers and advisors and principals and deans. If they’ve said that to you, love is their reason, and pride in your abilities or at least your IQ and potential. I expect you didn’t believe it anyway, but don’t let that lack of acceptance stop you. Perhaps you can’t be a brain surgeon or an astronaut, a Nobel-winning writer or an Oscar-winning director. You could follow your passion in whatever direction it leads you: the human mind, the moon and stars, words, movies. It’s a road to happiness.
  3.  Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Stephen Covey wrote the ground-breaking 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in 1989, thereby beginning an effort to establish character as the basis of business and personal interactions. “Seek” is fifth, and to me the most important for most of us. We are so anxious to make sure that we are understood, that we are heard, that our “rightness” is established. Back when Saturday Night Live was great, Gilda Radner had a character named Miss Emily Litella. She would give an editorial reply to some topic of the day, but when she was told she had the key topic wrong, she’d always smiles and say, “Well, that’s different. Never mind.” Here she rails against violins on television instead of violence. Her arguments are so good the anchor always hates to stop her, but it has to be done. Think of the benefits to future relationships, job success, world peace! All you have to do is be quiet.
  4. Don’t skip steps. As obvious as this seems (like save early and save often), the temptation not to do everything you’re supposed to every time you’re supposed to do it is great. The great secret of this wisdom is that it counteracts Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
  5. Forget yourself and go to work. Gordon B. Hinckley’s father Bryant wrote him this advice after receiving a despondent letter. The son was serving a church mission in England in 1933, sick and despondent. Nothing was going right, and he wrote to tell his father he was wasting time and money. Rather than a lecture about duty, his father summed up in five simple words one of the purest ways to feel right and do well. The world expects us to think of ourselves first. We can decide to go a different way. The work is actually the easier part.

I could go on, but “Brevity is the soul of wit” (which you’ll recognize from Hamlet as spoken by Polonius who was never brief and had no wit, which you’ll know if you really read the play.) To conclude, I’ll draw your attention to the word “commencement.” It means a beginning, at an event that graduates see as an ending, a culmination even. A go-forth-and-conquer speech this is not. Be good, do good. That will be enough regardless of what else happens.